“Tending to the fields”—which used to entail walking them to determine soil conditions and hoeing them to remove weeds—is now often done remotely and mechanically. The current system of production—which values high volume and profit above all else—has moved so far from the farmer’s spirit of land stewardship that it is no longer sustainable for the fields or the grower.

The shift in agricultural values is not so surprising when you see who is at the helm of the industry. The grain-growing scene is commandeered by chemical companies. Dow, Monsanto, and Archer Daniels Midland—the same folks that brought us such lovelies as the pesticide DDT and the herbicide Roundup and are paving the way in many areas of genetic engineering—are calling the shots in the fields and are using their deep corporate pockets to bend farming policy to their will.

To reach these corporate giants extends further than you might think. The grain crops—dominated by corn, soy, and wheat with cotton, rice, sorghum, and rapeseed (canola) in supporting roles—are the linchpins in our food chain. They are in practically every meal we eat, in all manner of forms and fabrications. These crops are ground into the flours that make our breads, cakes, pastas, and tortillas, and are flaked and puffed into our cereal bowls. They are also processed into all kinds of chips and crackers, tofu, miso, and a variety of fillers and binders. And they are pressed and extracted into the majority of our oils and processed into the sweeteners that have become ubiquitous in our foods. Eighty percent of the oil we consume is mad from soybeans. The majority of our sugar intake—which adds up to one pound per person every sixty hours—comes from syrups derived from corn. Even as a crop such as cotton, something you may not consider an edible commodity, is used in food production for the oil it renders.

Even at that, only a fraction of our grain crops is grown for human consumption. Livestock is on the consuming end of the majority of these crops. In 2003, for example, nearly 60 percent of the 10.2 billion bushels of corn produced in the United States was used to feed livestock.

And grains are becoming increasingly important beyond the kitchen. The grain industry is hard at work to find new applications for these crops. They are used to create textiles, as chemical bases, and as solvents. They can be turned into plastics, alcohol, even wallpaper. Even the creation of ethanol, a fuel additive, is a growing sector of the corn industry.


Grain products consisting of grains or grain flours that have been significantly modified from their natural composition. The modification process generally involves the mechanical removal of bran and germ, either through grinding or selective sifting. By removing the bran and the germ, there is a loss of key nutrients. The reason for this removal is simply for increased shelf life. Further refining includes mixing, bleaching, and brominating. Additionally, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and iron are often added back in to nutritionally enrich the product.

Marketers seem bent on feeding us white flour while making us think we’re eating whole grains. Here are some tips to see through their schemes:

1. If you don’t like the taste of whole wheat bread or crackers, try a brand that lists a whole grain first in the ingredient list. (That means the bread is mostly whole grain.) Remember: “wheat flour” and “unbleached wheat flour” are not whole grain.

2. Don’t rely on fiber numbers to find whole grains. Breads, especially “light” loaves, may have added processed fiber from peas or other foods. It may help prevent constipation and diverticulosis, but it doesn’t have the “whole package” of antioxidants and phytochemicals in whole grains.

3. Read labels carefully. Whole wheat and oatmeal are whole grains. But “oatmeal bread” and crackers that are “made with whole wheat” are mostly refined.


Ana Sofia Joanes

Fresh celebrates the farmers, thinkers and business people across America who are re-inventing our food system. Each has witnessed the rapid transformation of our agriculture into an industrial model, and confronted the consequences: food contamination, environmental pollution, depletion of natural resources, and morbid obesity. Forging healthier, sustainable alternatives, they offer a practical vision for a future of our food and our planet.

Among several main characters, Fresh features urban farmer and activist, Will Allen, the recipient of MacArthur’s 2008 Genius Award; sustainable farmer and entrepreneur, Joel Salatin, made famous by Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma; and supermarket owner, David Ball, challenging our Wal-Mart dominated economy.